Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Full-bodied worrying

Two articles today: The Informed Reader (B12, second item, subscription required), and the Health Journal (D1, subscription required). Both items are about the brain; one concerning body movements helping one to think, the other about a "worry gene." Here they are, in reverse order for no apparent reason.

Melinda Beck, in the Health Journal, notes the oft-emphasized fact that we are not at the total mercy of our genes. Scientists have discovered a variation of a gene, called BDNF, that increases certain peoples' tendency to be worrywarts by acting in the hippocampus (a brain area related to memory and learning). But how are we to defeat our tendency to over-worry? Beck offers a few tips:
  • "...doing something distracting for just 10 minutes can break the cycle and help people tackle problems more effectively." This can probably be most easily seen in young children who have just woken from naps and are crying even though they may not know the cause.
  • Says psychologist Robert L. Leahy: "Say to yourself, 'Is this worry leading to a To Do list?' If it doesn't lead to some action on your part today, set it aside." If you can't beat it, make it productive.
  • Leahy also "suggests literally reserving 20 minutes a day to worry. If you can postpone worrying, you are exercising control over it, rather than letting it control you." It's all in the schedule, I guess.
  • Finally, says Beck, "Practice saying or writing whatever you fear most, such as, "the plane is going to crash" or "I'm going to lose my job." "Repeat it over and over again slowly, like a zombie, and the fear will begin to subside," [Leahy] says. Eventually, "you'll just get bored with it.""
Here's the Informed Reader, scooping the Jan. 13 Boston Globe... (bold text is mine)

People think with their bodies, not just with their brains, according to some recent studies. (I guess that's why exercise usually invigorates people--try, for example, singing in a choir for an hour, then do a few math problems.)

...Drake Bennett reports on the emerging field of "embodied cognition," which suggests that actions such as pacing the carpet or gesturing with one's hands might clarify the thought process as much as anything going on in the brain. Researchers...aim to erase the presumed divide between mind and body that dates back at least to philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century.

For instance, a study led by Arizona State University psychology professor Arthur Glenberg found that arm movements can affect language comprehension. Children are more likely to solve mathematics problems if they are told to gesture with their hands as they think through the problem. (My mother, a reading specialist, has applied this in years past, doing exercises such as "ear eights"--keeping one ear attached to an arm while tracing huge figure eights in the air with that arm--with dyslexic children) Another line of research has found that unconscious eye movements help people solve certain kinds of brainteasers.

Body actions also seem to subtly shape preferences over time. Expert typists, when told to name their favorite two-letter combinations from a random selection, picked out easy-to-type couplets but couldn't give a reason why they preferred them.

At the extreme, some embodied-cognition thinkers say that the form of the human body has shaped some apparently abstract concepts. Linguist George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley, believes that the number system has its roots in humans' ability to walk upright, which makes it possible to measure distances in discrete steps. If humans "moved along the ground on our bellies like snakes, math might be quite different," says Mr. Lakoff. (Ah, but isn't bipedal locomotion more unlikely to develop than sliding? It requires more energy and may be just about as fast...perhaps evidence for creation rather than spontaneous macroevolution.)

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